The CDC announced today that students and teachers in K-12 schools should all wear masks, whether they’re vaccinated or not. And people who are vaccinated should go back to wearing masks indoors if they are in an area with “substantial” or “high” community transmission.
Who needs to start wearing masks again?
Among the changes, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- If you are fully vaccinated, you should mask up indoors if local transmission is substantial or high.
- If you are fully vaccinated and have unvaccinated or vulnerable people at home, you may want to mask up regardless of the level of community transmission.
- Everyone in K-12 schools, including teachers, staff, students, and visitors, should wear a mask whether they are vaccinated or not.
- People who are fully vaccinated should still get a COVID test if they know they were exposed.
To check whether transmission in your area is substantial or high, use this tool from the CDC and look up your county. (Substantial means 50 new cases per 100,000 people per day, and high means 100.) Much of the southeastern and western United States are in that category; the northeast is mostly in “moderate” transmission territory. That said, cases may rise soon, given Delta’s trajectory, so continue checking the numbers in your area.
Why the change?
The changes are driven by new data on the Delta variant. The vaccines are still mostly effective against Delta, and they still protect against death and hospitalization, but officials are noticing breakthrough cases (less than 3% of COVID cases, according to earlier data). Officials mentioned on a press call today that people who are fully vaccinated and who contract the Delta variant of COVID-19 carry viral loads just as high as unvaccinated people. This means that they may be just as likely as a sick, unvaccinated person to pass the virus on to others.
This was not the case for the Alpha variant, which was responsible for most U.S. COVID cases earlier this year, nor for the original strains of the virus. CDC officials said that when they made the earlier recommendations that everyone—including school children—could go maskless, they were expecting cases to fall and vaccination rates to climb. Thanks to Delta, cases are ticking up again, and about 30% of Americans seem uninterested in ever getting a COVID vaccine.
Are we going to wear masks forever, then?
“Masking is a temporary measure,” CDC officials said on the press call. “What we need to do to drive down transmission is get people vaccinated.”
People who are fully vaccinated are mostly protected from catching the virus, and from coming down with symptoms. If enough people in your area are vaccinated, cases will be low. And if cases are low and most people are vaccinated, it would be rare to run into somebody who can infect you.
In the meantime, masks are a helpful tool to reduce transmission. Yes, it sucks that we have to put them back on when we just got used to going without them, but this is a stopgap that can be useful until more people are vaccinated—assuming enough people will be willing to be vaccinated.
Right now, children under age 12 aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, and only 30% of teenagers are, so bringing back the mask requirement for schools is a sensible move. It’s now up to states, schools, municipalities, and institutions to decide whether they will follow and enforce the new guidelines.